- As a youngster in the 1960s, Janet Marsh spent hours beside England’s Itchen River while her father fished, closely observing the teeming life of the small English stream. Her love of wildlife there, and desire to draw what she saw, helped inspire her to become an accomplished artist.
- In 1979, she published her “nature diary,” profiling the life of her beloved river with exquisite watercolor illustrations along with astute observations. She also added her voice and images to a campaign protesting the extension of a motorway over the river. A selection of her Itchen illustrations are featured in this story.
- Decades later, Marsh revisits the river with Mongabay, noting that the motorway itself, though noisy, hasn’t caused widespread damage, with wildlife proving resilient. Far more harmful has been steady human development, with pollution from fish farms, septic tanks and cropland runoff all gradually killing the river.
- The Itchen and other rivers like it have been called England’s coral reefs due to their biodiversity. They are like small watersheds the world over that get little attention, but where the web of life is unraveling due to human-induced change. In such unsung places, local activists often step up to document and preserve nature.
“I was a teenager, 14, when I first visited the valley. My father was a dead-keen fisherman, so he was in his camouflage,” Janet Marsh tells us. “I didn’t want to fish — and still don’t. But I did like to draw. And I had hours and hours of time to observe the wildlife.”
Marsh, now 69, is relating her first encounter with the Itchen River, a rare chalk stream in the southern U.K. county of Hampshire, where her love of painting and illustration blossomed in the 1960s — as did her love of all things wild.
One of her Itchen paintings (the banner image for this article) was featured by a local newspaper, eliciting interest from art book publishers. Janet then decided to create an illustrated nature diary as part of her degree in art. It was published in 1979.
Decades on, this visual chronicle provides a vivid ecological record: a time capsule of flora and fauna along the Itchen, a 42-kilometer (26-mile) river that rises east of the historic city of Winchester and flows to the English Channel in Southampton. Her long association with the valley also provides an evolving view of ecosystem change, including a major motorway extension, which disturbed the stream’s sleepy course.
Some 85% of the world’s 200 chalk streams are found in England, and WWF, the conservation organization, says those watersheds make a big contribution to U.K. biodiversity: “Their pure, clear, constant water from underground chalk aquifers and springs, flowing across flinty gravel beds, make them perfect sources of clean water — and ideal for lots of wild creatures to breed and thrive.”
Janina Gray, a scientist and policy expert at WildFish, a fisheries charity, believes such rivers are among the world’s most precious ecosystems. “Chalk streams are England’s coral reefs, actually a lot rarer than the coral reefs,” Gray told Mongabay.
The Itchen is considered a particularly fine example. In 2001, it became a protected area, designated a site of special scientific interest by the government.
Janet Marsh’s Nature Diary (published by Michael Joseph Ltd.; available here) isn’t just a work of art; it’s also a worthwhile piece of citizen science, offering some baseline data and a snapshot of a long-gone world captured in watercolors. Scientists have used similar nature journals (including the writings of 19th-century U.S. naturalist Henry David Thoreau and 18th-century British naturalist Gilbert White) as supporting evidence for ecosystem alterations by climate change, land-use change and other human activities.
And today, even as scientists rightly put much of their attention on the at-risk Amazon or other of the globe’s most biodiverse rainforests, it’s often gifted observers — the Janet Marshes of the world — who stand witness for decades, gathering critical data on big changes to small, often forgotten, but vital watersheds scattered about our planet.
A labor of love, observation and activism
The chalk river valley’s wildlife captivated Marsh from the first. In the 1970s, she often sat quietly by the river, sketching, witnessing extraordinary moments, recounted in her diary.
Once she recalls coming across a roving group of lapwing fledglings: “I saw six or seven wandering unsteadily about in different parts of the field, obviously without parental control … The small chick had large black eyes, long black beak, and long legs with large feet. Its little body was downy and mottled with pale and dark brown markings.” An adult landed a few feet away and went into defense mode: “It commenced a big act, dragging one wing across the grass and then both, limping and staggering desperately as it tried to lead me away … I succumbed, and followed it, to the gate.”
On another occasion, she writes, “I was both horrified and amazed looking down to see a huge trout by my feet with its mouth wide open; it was shaking a large female toad slowly from side to side and was holding her tightly with its needle-sharp teeth. The trout having gripped her belly, the toad was now quite dead, her long legs trailing in the water. The fish slowly moved away, swimming upstream with its prize to the opposite bank … I had learnt and seen something I will never forget.”
So it was that Marsh was horrified when she heard of plans to extend the busy M3 motorway linking London to Winchester, with a bridge across the Itchen River. Despite a vigorous opposition campaign by environmentalists, the construction went ahead.
But while Marsh thought the highway might doom much life on the river — with her rushing to record it in her diary before it was lost — time has shown that, even though the heavy flow of traffic brought noise, the road was not to be the river’s main problem.
Marsh, along with many local residents and scientists, believes the river is besieged today by multiplying perils affecting water quality and jeopardizing the food chain of animal and plant life the river supports.
Trouble on the Itchen River
To the casual observer, the Itchen River looks as idyllic as ever it did. But Roger Harrison, an environmentalist who has lived next to it since 1952, detects fundamental changes. “[The river] is polluted in a way it never was. And that pollution takes a number of different forms. It grows algae in the spring, brown algae, that covers all the gravel at the bottom of the river, and in the summer long, stringy algae. And there are also diatoms [single-celled algae] in the water which make the water very dark.
“The expression used about chalk streams was that they were ‘as clear as gin,’ that you could see everything. You can’t say that now,” he concludes sadly. “It’s especially bad this year.” Farmers, industries, and even water companies are all playing a role, he says.
Escalating chemical contamination is a major problem. Janina Gray notes that year after year, more and more chemicals are authorized for use in the U.K. Some 350,000 chemicals have been approved, she notes, with that number set to double to 700,000 by 2030. “Yet we only actually monitor in England about 45 different chemicals in our rivers. So we haven’t got a clue about the impact most are having.”
Another factor is raw sewage, Harrison explains: “A lot of the headwater villages in the chalk area do not have mains drainage, [because] water companies, privatized 40 years ago, have never put mains drainage into the villages. A lot of the people living in these villages don’t know that septic tanks only take out the solids, and zero of the chemicals.”
Raw sewage flows from these domestic septic tanks and from fish farms, says Harrison. “We have two fish farms on the upper river. One (and I think the other is the same), produces 200 tons of trout a year and it has to feed about 280 tons of dry matter to the fish. That means about a ton and a half of fish feces a week are going into the river from each of those farms. The farms have septic ponds. They’re licensed by the environmental agency, but they’re not properly managed. They definitely have an adverse effect on the river.”
Nick Price, a co-owner of Test Village Trout, one of the two fish farms, challenges Harrison’s accusations. “I grew up by the Itchen River and its health is very important to me,” he said. “We work closely with EA [the Environment Agency, a regulatory body] and follow their regulations rigorously.” He added that they test the water quality before it reaches the farm, and afterward too, and generally it’s the same. “At times, after heavy rain, the amount of soil flowing down the river [is excessive], which overwhelms everything,” making accurate monitoring impossible. In his view, the really serious problems are “the degradation of fly life and agricultural runoff.”
At times, Southern Water, the local privatized water company, adds to the problem, though it does so legally. The companies are permitted by the government to release raw sewage “in rare circumstances when the system becomes overwhelmed,” a regulatory loophole that Southern Water and other water companies can use routinely.
Earlier this year, there was outrage in the press and social media when the EA published figures showing that Southern Water had released 486 hours’ worth of raw sewage into the Itchen River in 2021-2022.
Danny Chambers, a local politician, commented: “People around here are furious at how badly Southern Water treats the Itchen River. It is outrageous to think wildlife in our local rivers is being poisoned by disgusting raw sewage. Last year  Southern Water made an operating profit of £138m [$166 million] yet it regularly dumps raw sewage into our streams and onto our beaches. The whole thing stinks!” Mongabay contacted Southern Water for a response, but it didn’t reply.
On 31 August, Nick Measham, the chief executive of the river conservation charity, WildFish, claimed that the government’s strategy for dealing with the raw sewage problem would allow “storm overflows to continue dumping raw sewage for the next 28 years.” The plan, he said, showed the government had “no real appetite to deal robustly with the appalling sewage pollution of English rivers caused by water companies.” Arguing that the plan was “unlawful,” he said that his charity would call for a judicial review to force the government to “withdraw the strategy immediately.”
The multiple river pollutants have a cumulative effect. From 2015 to 2017, WildFish, then known as Salmon and Trout Conservation (S&TC), carried out a riverfly census to determine water quality in 12 English rivers, including the Itchen. It found that runoff from agricultural and urban lands, sewage and industrial discharges all fed into the river systems, causing “combinations of excess fine sediments, phosphates, nitrates and toxic chemicals.” WildFish dubbed the crisis “death by a million cuts … for our rivers.”
Scientist Nick Everall from the Aquascience Consultancy, a private company, believes the southern U.K. is more severely affected than the rest of the country. He sees high, growing population density as the underlying problem, as it drives rising demand for water from the rivers.
Even so, both Everall and WildFish say the EA is failing to enforce regulations — partly because it lacks sufficient funding.
Add to all these issues a U.K. regulatory atmosphere that Everall says prioritizes economic development over environmental protection. And looking far beyond the Itchen, such political conundrums plague small rivers the world over.
One-off successes against an onslaught of problems
Environmentalists have notched up some local victories. Harrison cites the case of Bakkavör, an Icelandic company that had a salad-washing plant along the upper Itchen.
It was “importing salad vegetables from all over the world, producing 2 million bags of salad a month, and washing off pesticides … banned in the U.K. into the Itchen River.” In June 2018, WildFish formally notified the EA, forcing an investigation. The EA discovered that the company was using a suite of pesticides, including “a neonicotinoid very dangerous to aquatic life.” Rather than investing in measures to eliminate the pollution, Bakkavör closed the plant in 2020.
One-off successes aside, there’s no sign of overall improvement as the degradation trend worsens. In the EA’s latest annual environmental performance assessment of water companies, published July 14, 2022, Southern Water topped the list of the worst offenders.
Of the nine companies assessed, Southern Water was one of two given the lowest rating, and its performance was listed as “terrible across the board.” The EA did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment, but in a report published in July 2022, it slammed Southern Water and another failing water company. Using unusually strong language, it wrote: “We would like to see prison sentences for Chief Executives and Board members whose companies are responsible for the most serious incidents.”
Itchen invertebrates in trouble
Both WildFish and Aquascience use invertebrate monitoring — detecting the presence of “wee beasties,” as Everall calls them — as a metric to assess water quality. But, of course, invertebrates are in themselves crucial to the health of the river.
S&TC, as WildFish was previously known, agreed with the EA in 2017 on key environmental targets for the Itchen and the nearby Test, another chalk river. These included a “minimum benchmark” of 500 Gammarus pulex, a common freshwater shrimp. At the time, the situation was dire: It was common to log fewer than 100 G. pulex in three-minute kick-sweep samples of the water, while an acceptable count was 4,000.
By 2021 the readings hadn’t improved, with some samples yielding fewer than 50 shrimp. “These shrimps are at the bottom of the food chain,” Harrison said. “The collapse of the invertebrate life in the river because of the pollution is absolutely conspicuous.”
Another target agreed to by the EA and also by S&TC in 2017 was that the two rivers, to be healthy, should support 10 mayfly species. But “mean annual mayfly species declined from 14 in 1998, to seven in 2021 at Itchen St. Cross,” Gray said. Caddisfly and stonefly numbers have also declined.
These findings are in line with national figures. A recent citizen science survey of flying insect population across the U.K. suggested a decline of nearly 60% between 2004 and 2021.
The survey authors warned further: “Invertebrates are critical to ecosystem functions and services. They pollinate most of the world’s crops, provide natural pest control services, and decompose organic matter and recycle nutrients into the soil … Without insects, life on Earth would collapse, millions of species would go extinct, and we would be surrounded by the carcases of dead animals.”
And yet, it is exactly these types of insect decline trends — though to varying degrees and due to many causes — that are being seen in watersheds large and small around the globe, invoking scientists’ and media warnings of a looming “insect apocalypse.”
Negative native crayfish
Populations of the white-clawed crayfish (Austropotamobius pallipes), the U.K.’s only native crayfish species, are also in trouble — not just in the Itchen but in the country as a whole. Everall explains why: “The EA gave fish farms a licence to produce signal crayfish [an exotic species] for the table and they escaped. They can walk up to half a kilometer across damp fields. So they’ll spread between rivers, which our native ones can’t do.”
Signal crayfish also spread a deadly fungal plague, to which they are immune, which is devastating the native species. Everall notes: “There are very few natural populations of native crayfish left. They tend to exist at little ark sites,” refuge sites where populations can be established away from threats.
More threats are emerging, Everall warns, including the invasive killer shrimp, which arrived in the U.K. from the Black Sea in ballast water on ships. “It’s extremely voracious, it will wipe out a lot of our natural communities,” he predicts.
Fish in decline
When it comes to Itchen fish populations — including brown trout, Atlantic salmon, sea trout, bullhead, along with eels and brook lamprey — a clear picture is harder to draw. The Itchen is a premier fishing destination and portions of it are regularly stocked, masking the effects of insect and invertebrate declines on fish populations.
But, Janet Marsh says, there are clues invertebrate losses pose a threat to fish too. She cites anecdotal accounts of some fish dying off due to the lack of fly life, particularly over the winter. Other local accounts claim fish are becoming smaller and thinner, and that some are turning to cannibalism.
Once again, as in many small watersheds globally, lack of data is a problem. Gray says, for example, that Atlantic salmon are categorized on the IUCN Red List as being of “least concern.” But she notes that WildFish has secured funding to allow the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority, to look again at salmon populations this year — an effort she suggests is likely to deliver a different assessment. “Salmon populations are in freefall,” she declares.
The data on remaining eel populations — plentiful and caught in traps in the late 1950s and ’60s at every mill pond on the Itchen as they descended the river on the way to spawn in the Sargasso Sea — is similarly scant. “Now it is a rarity to see one in the river,” reports Harrison.
Mammals fading away
“The three British aquatic mammals, water vole, water shrew and otter are all present in my small area,” Janet Marsh wrote in her diary in 1979. “Water voles and shrews are very common.” But the otter, she added then, “is now very rare,” having dramatically declined in previous decades due to the introduction of industrial chemicals and pesticides such as DDT.
Since then, there have been further declines in small mammals. Patrick Moyle, a water keeper who maintains the Itchen for fishing, confirms that water voles “have been scarce in the last 20, 30 years.” Among problems they face is predation by the American mink, which proliferated after escaping from a nearby mink farm in a storm. There’s little data on the water shrew, but they too are thought to be vulnerable to pollution and waterborne pesticides.
But the otter represents one of the few Itchen wildlife success stories since Marsh noted its deep decline in 1979. After three were reintroduced to the river in 1994, otters have since become common. While few people see the elusive predator, evidence of its “spraint,” or fecal deposits, are often seen.
Life continues on an enchanted river
In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt, newly retired as U.S. president, spent a day walking in the Itchen River Valley, accompanied by Edward Grey, a fellow ornithologist and British foreign secretary at the time. “Altogether I passed no pleasanter 24 hours during my entire European trip,” he later wrote.
Since then, the Itchen River has been battered, but it continues to delight. Taking us on a walk along the stretch of shoreline he owns and protects, Harrison brightened with pride. The river that day was indeed magical in the evening summer sunlight, with its proliferation of reeds, wildflowers and birdsong. Not the Amazon, maybe, but lifegiving in its own right.
Janet Marsh, now an elder, is never happier than when splashing idyllically in the stream, hunting for shrimp, snails and mayflies. And she’s delighted to hand on the baton. “I brought my children up to love river life,” she told Mongabay, and “my younger daughter is actually going to live in the cottage that my father fished from. My grandsons are already enjoying the river. It’s really lovely.”
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